In my last column (Issue 950, Feb 18), I addressed several ways to strengthen the democratic election of government. This week, I highlight three areas of concern that require attention to strengthen democratic governance after a government accedes to state power.
First is the concentration of state power in the executive branch of government and the importance of checks and balances in the exercise of that power. Second is the confrontational and suspicious relationship between civil society and government. Third is the bitter, confrontational relationship between government and the opposition. Addressing these concerns will go a long way towards strengthening democratic governance and the development of a mature democracy in the country.
Although there are four branches of government in Malaysia - executive, parliament, judiciary and the Rulers - for a number of reasons, over the last five decades, there has been a steady growth in the power and role of the executive and a corresponding erosion in the power and role of the other branches of government.
Today, the power of the executive is in several ways unbridled. Concentration of power in the state and in the executive has made for intense competition with opportunities for patronage and abuse. To prevent such consequences, it is important to set firm criteria for the exercise of state power and correct the imbalances among the four branches of government.
State power is the prize for which political parties compete. Victory allows the winning party to execute its preferred policy platform. However, victory does not give the incumbent government a blank cheque. The party in power cannot do as it pleases.
Three criteria must govern the exercise of state power. One, state power must be deployed to serve the public good. Public good here implies the interests of all citizens and groups and the interests of the country as a whole, not just of those who supported the party or of party members. The hallmark of a democratic government is that it is responsive to citizen interests. At the same time, the government must have sufficient autonomy to act on behalf of the entire national community and in the longer-term interests of the country.
This is a challenging task that requires careful balancing between popular policies and responsible governance. Victory in political competition for state power must be seen as a mandate to implement certain philosophy of government and a set of policies. Success or failure in that effort provides a measure of judgment for the electorate in future elections. Encouraging policy competition, this criterion for the exercise of state power would discourage personality-based competition for state power and money politics.
The second criterion is that state power must be exercised in accordance with the laws of the land and through legal, transparent and accountable institutions and processes. Formulation and execution of laws, policies and projects; interactions among state, political society, civil society and the private sector; dealing with transgressions of the law and threats to public order and security; awarding state contracts and the like must follow constitutional and legal provisions, be subject to checks and balances by relevant branches of government and be open to public scrutiny.
Third, dispensing government funds, goods, contracts and services must be through impartial state institutions (principally the civil service at the federal and state levels, but also other arms of the state) and nonpolitical civil society organisations. It is important to separate government from party. Fusion of the two can breed corruption and abuse of state power. Personal, party and public interests must be separate and transparent in the exercise of state power.
The exercise of state power must be a shared responsibility and function of all branches of government. Each branch must check others to ensure state power is deployed to serve the public good. As stated earlier there are four branches of government in Malaysia. However, for a number of reasons, the concentration and exercise of state power have become heavily tilted towards the executive.
The parliament has all along been a weak institution with many labeling it a rubber stamp in the hands of a powerful executive. A strong judiciary, compromised over the years, is in the process of rebuilding. The Malaysian constitution assigns important roles to the rulers but their significance in the political system has not been fully appreciated by the public and in political society. It is important to define, elaborate and strengthen the democratic roles of each branch of government in the exercise of state power to foster checks and balances among them without hindering effective government.
Of particular significance is the role and responsibility of parliament, which is the principal representative institution. It has a special responsibility in ensuring the proper exercise of state power to serve the interests of citizens.
The constitution assigns key roles to the Dewan Rakyat, including legislation, debates on key matters and control of government finances, including taxation and budget. Although parliament has not been bypassed, it would appear to have underplayed its roles and responsibilities. Parliament must be strengthened to enable it to effectively scrutinise and, if necessary, challenge the work of the executive; vigorously debate, pass or reject legislation; debate issues of national significance and closely scrutinise government revenues and expenditure.
Parliament can be strengthened in several ways, including empowering parliamentarians, the nomination and election of parliamentarians by their respective constituencies, fostering substantive debates in parliament, revitalising existing or establishing new issue-specific select committees to closely review relevant bills, requiring all such bills to be processed through select committees that have representation from ruling and opposition political parties as well as professional staff with input from independent experts, creating a parliamentary research unit that services all parliamentarians, and educating parliamentarians on their roles and duties.
The image of the Malaysian parliament must be transformed from one of insignificance and subservience to a well-informed and vigorous institution that plays on par with the executive. Parliamentarians should take pride in their institution and their own contributions to the security, welfare and development of the country and their constituency. Ways should also be explored to make the Dewan Negara a more representative body with• important roles in democratic governance.
In addition to the four branches of government, civil society can play important roles in deepening democratic governance. However, the present confrontational and suspicious relationship between segments of civil society and the government is unhealthy and unhelpful.
Re-engineering that relationship must begin with the acknowledgement that like political society and the private sector, civil society is a vital space with potential to make important contributions to democratic governance. This is now the case in countries such as South Korea and Taiwan, which previously viewed their civil societies with deep suspicion and animosity.
Citizen participation does not end with the election of a government. Through dialogue and discourse among them and with relevant branches of government, groups, associations and organisations operating in the civil society space, including the media, NGOs and academia, can scrutinise policies and the performance of the government, expose abuse of state power, advocate policy alternatives, provide expertise, give voice to peoples and groups not heard through the machinery of government, deliver services and engage in governance.
We should disabuse ourselves of the notion that all governance must be by government. Government is not the solution to all our problems. Civil society can govern in many areas.We should seriously explore the domains in which civil society can govern.
To enable civil society groups to effectively perform advocacy, alternative discourse, monitoring, delivery and governance roles, government must recognise and guarantee civil society space through appropriate legal frameworks. At the same time, civil society groups must distinguish themselves from political society. Civil society organisations do not seek state power but political parties do. It is important to keep them separate if civil society organisations are to carry out their functions effectively.
It is a fact that political parties compete for state power, and frequently that process is confrontational with each seeking to undermine or outdo the other(s). However, once the election is over, government and opposition must shift their focus to issues of governance. Effective democratic governance requires all political, bureaucratic, civil society and private sector leaders to commit themselves to democratic principles, norms and practices.
They must all role play accordingly. Without such commitment, no institutional or procedural design is foolproof. Political opposition must accept and respect the government in power. Its primary purpose must Dot be to oust a duly elected government by whatever means (as in Bangladesh for example), but to play the role of loyal opposition in governance.
There should be space and opportunity for the opposition to play that role. For example, a specific time (one out of every 5 or 10 days of parliamentary time) should be set aside for opposition business in parliament. The ruling party and opposition should be proportionately represented in parliamentary select committees.
The formation of a shadow cabinet will enable the opposition to focus on policy. Respect, space and opportunity will facilitate the development of a mature democracy, avoiding debilitating political struggles.
It will also prevent the conflation of government and state institutions (like the civil service, armed forces, police force and judiciary).Although they function under the direction of the incumbent government, they should remain autonomous institutions.
This article was originally published in Edge Malaysia.